Leadership & Governance

Video: Heading a University System With Nervous Professors

March 02, 2016

Produced by Carmen Mendoza

Raymond W. Cross has faced some serious tests in his two years as president of the University of Wisconsin system. Last year he had to defend his system against a proposed budget cut of $300 million. More recently he has dealt with faculty unrest as the system has struggled to come up with new tenure policies to replace faculty job protections that were stripped from state law.

About This Series

The Chronicle’s On Leadership video series explores various aspects of campus leadership with movers and shakers across academe. The series is hosted by Chronicle editors and reporters. Visit our complete collection of interviews. 

With the system’s Board of Regents expected to vote on the new policies at its March meeting, The Chronicle interviewed Mr. Cross about the challenges he faces in trying both to reassure professors who are worried about their job security and to make Wisconsin’s lawmakers and citizens more supportive of its public universities.


PETER SCHMIDT: Hi, I'm Peter Schmidt. I'm a senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education. My guest today is Dr. Ray Cross. He's the president of the University of Wisconsin system, and we're here today to talk about recent developments in that state. Dr. Cross, welcome here.

RAY CROSS: Thanks, Peter. Nice to be here.

PETER SCHMIDT: I want to start out talking about something that's been getting a lot of attention in Wisconsin, the proposed tenure policies that are coming up in the state. Two policies in particular. One deals with post-tenure review, the other deals with layoff provisions dealing with faculty members.

The post-tenure review policy would call for evaluations of faculty members about every five years. What's the necessity for that?

RAY CROSS: Well, I think the existing policy calls for something similar. There is an existing post-tenure review policy, Peter. It's used sporadically in this system, and I think the attempt to create a more consistent policy that's applied more universally around the system is one of the primary purposes for the board to do that.

PETER SCHMIDT: The layoff provisions. We're talking about changing how the system approaches layoffs, so that tenured faculty members would no longer be laid off only in times of financial emergency, but also due to program closure and program closure over strategic reasons, for financial reasons. Why that change?

RAY CROSS: Well, part of the process of discontinuing the program within the state of Wisconsin, we've always worked with faculty to try to find positions for them at every institution. That's going to continue. However, within the whole legislative process, it became clear that, back in the '70s, the Board of Regents actually eliminated positions through program discontinuance. I think 30-some faculty were laid off. Without a policy, without due process, without all of the processes that go through that.

So even though we haven't used that for a long time, I think this was important. So when the legislature decided to eliminate tenure from the statutory language as well as shared governance, and they changed shared governance, when they did that, it was incumbent upon the board to craft a policy that was not only workable for faculty, but also workable for chancellors and the board. So at that point, what they decided to do is bring over all of the statutory language, Peter, from the statute that dealt with just cause, that dealt with the fiscal exigency. That language came over correctly. That is one of the three policies the board will be looking at next week.

The second is, as you say, program discontinuance, which most other institutions have, and it relates to educational considerations. One of which is financial, obviously. Not just a cyclical, but a prolonged drop in enrollment, or other factors that allow the administration — working with faculty in order to discontinue that program.

So I think that's something that almost every other institution has. I know Michigan has it, Maryland has it, Utah has it, California state. I could list all of those — the board looked at all of those policies as well.

PETER SCHMIDT: I'm hearing a lot of faculty complaints, however, that they think their job security is being eroded here, and they're upset about this. You think those worries are well-founded, or have they been overblown?

RAY CROSS: Well, it's difficult to separate the emotional distrust that the faculty have of the governor, of the legislature, from what I would call a rational language in the policies. Now, it is true that program discontinuance was not in statutory language. It is now in policy. And the ability to lay faculty off due to that through due process and through extensive faculty involvement, certainly not for arbitrary reasons or arbitrary decisions, that's something the faculty would object to, and so would I.

So much of this, as the AAUP has articulated, it will depend on how this is implemented. Is this going to be implemented in a way that's fair and just and appropriate, and in keeping with traditional tenure policies around the country. And that's our job.

PETER SCHMIDT: Speaking of the AAUP, the American Association of University Professors has told you they'll be watching what goes on there, and making sure that you honor due process, and that you have sufficient faculty involvement in tenure decisions. Are you at all worried about running afoul of them, or being censured by the AAUP over these changes?

RAY CROSS: I wouldn't say we're worried about it. We're concerned about their opinions, absolutely. We engaged them several times in this process. We've studied their materials, we've asked for their opinions, their analysis. It's been part of the input that the board received, and we made adjustments accordingly, in some places, based on the input they provided and the counsel they provided.

PETER SCHMIDT: Now, the board is due to vote on these policies later this month. Any chance at all they're going to vote them down, or postpone the vote?

RAY CROSS: Well, there's always a chance. I don't think they'll postpone it. I think that they want to make that decision. But there will probably be some amendments. I know there's several discussions about that going on about what amendments might be acceptable, how can we amend this. The faculty have proposed some amendments as well.

So there'll be discussion about what possible changes might be made, both the post-tenure review policy and the program discontinuance layoff policy.

PETER SCHMIDT: Assuming the policies are passed, where do you go from there?

RAY CROSS: Well, then each campus will develop — they have nine months to develop a campus practice or policy which will articulate how this broadly stated policy will be implemented on their campus. We have received a draft of — the Madison campus has already put forward what they call a Faculty Policy and Practice, an FP&P, and how they would interpret the program discontinuance layoff process, and right now that looks pretty good. With minor changes, I think that we could approve that.

The board will take a look at that during the month of March, probably the education committee will receive that and act upon it at the April board meeting.

PETER SCHMIDT: Turning to another subject, last year, Governor Walker was proposing a $300 million biennial cut in the university system budget. You were threatening to resign if the cut went through. They ended up with a cut of $50 million. I guess two questions here. Are you out of the woods financially, in terms of this sort of cut coming down the road, and how many times can you threaten to resign before they call your bluff?

RAY CROSS: Well, there were two causes where if I couldn't significantly reduce this cut, or that if they destroyed tenure, or rewrote it in language they thought was appropriate, then I would've resigned. And I still maintain that. So we reduced the cut from $300 million to essentially $200 million. A portion of that was a lapsed, so it was a significant cut, given the budget.

In the future going forward, we're hopeful that things will be much better. We're working closely with legislators and with the governor to try to ensure that. We think it's really important, and the university has absorbed considerable cuts, and the university is critical to the future of the state. We are a major economic drive. The economy of the state of Wisconsin badly needs what we offer right now.

PETER SCHMIDT: You've been in the presidency about two years now. Has the job been tougher than you thought it was going to be?

RAY CROSS: Is it a trick question, Peter? Yes, it's been tougher. It's certainly been tougher.

Obviously these jobs aren't easy, but I think the polarized political environment, the challenges, the trust factor that exists between faculty and the legislature, and to some extent the board, requires a delicate hand in trying to deal with some of this. There are good people on both sides of the aisle. Good people, tremendous people in the faculty and staff, and how do we make sure that the university, in the future, continues to be a flagship and a series of comprehensives that provide what I think is some of the best education in the United States.

PETER SCHMIDT: When I was in Madison about 10 years ago, relations between the university system and the legislature were already hitting a rough spot. What do you think has caused that sort of tension? What's the political context of that state, and how do you get on sounder ground with the legislature and with the citizens there?

RAY CROSS: I think probably again, before that, you were already seeing some of the fruits of that. It's true around the country. The polarization in our society is filtered into the political arena very strongly, and we see that in the presidential race. We see that all around.

I believe, from a very pragmatic perspective, our job is to try to be factual, truthful, transparent, and also candid about how we can influence the future. So much of what we do is not just related to money we receive, but a great deal of what we do is to change the lives of young men and women, and older men and women who return to the university. And in doing so we, transform not only employers and the businesses that they represent, but also our whole society.

PETER SCHMIDT: Are you at all worried that people in the state see the university system and its campuses as out of reach in terms of tuition and cost of attendance?

RAY CROSS: Certainly some do, Peter, and part of my job is to erase that with humility, honesty, and reach out to them. And in many cases, they don't understand what kind of things we do that impacts their daily lives, whether it's Alzheimer's research, or its research on milk production, or it's research in the areas of retinal stem cell activity. We do tremendous things to change their lives and to improve their lives.

PETER SCHMIDT: Anything you plan to do about affordability in your state?

RAY CROSS: We're trying to work on the time-to-degree factor, to reduce the total cost of attendance, not just the tuition portion of it. Tuition is a minor piece of it. It's important, but it's a minor piece. If we can accelerate the time-to-degree through multiple means — better counseling, possibility of more dual enrollment in high school, things of that nature, guaranteed four-year completions — we really, dramatically reduce the cost, not just hold it the same.

PETER SCHMIDT: I think this will take care of me. Dr. Cross, thank you for being here today.

RAY CROSS: Thanks for having me, Peter.